Firstly: please, please ignore all shamefully exploitative press reactions to Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird from its premiere festival screenings in Venice and Toronto (“MORE cinema-goers flee horrific Holocaust movie that shows brutal scenes of incest, zoophilia, child rape and mutilation,” The Daily Mail proclaims with the zeal of William Castle offering his audiences barf bags).
The Painted Bird is most certainly not the grim and graphic spectacle that some media outlets would have you believe. It is instead a strikingly beautiful and deeply authentic re-creation of a journey through real-world horrors that rates alongside some of the most memorable and affecting of WWII movies – Come and See, Schindler’s List, and Son of Saul – and among the best Czech films ever made.
Audiences in 2019 may certainly find The Painted Bird a relentlessly downbeat three-hour tour through the brutality of WWII difficult to endure, but there’s no denying the cinematic skill with which it has been crafted. The real-world horrors the movie contains are generally depicted with care, subtlety, and a even a naivety the film’s perspective shares with its young protagonist; journalists touting them as if this were the latest Ilsa Nazisploitation flick ought to re-examine their relationship with art.
Young Petr Kotlár stars in The Painted Bird as Joska, a young boy who experiences a litany of WWII horrors during a perilous trek across Eastern Europe as German and Russian forces converge on the battlefield in the background. Kotlár obtained the role after his brother, originally cast in the lead, aged out of it during the film’s lengthy pre-production process (which director Marhoul described in disarmingly transparent detail at this year’s Noir Film Festival, but that’s a discussion for another time).
But it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Kotlár, on screen in almost every scene and visibly aging from beginning to end (The Painted Bird was filmed in sequence over parts of two years), in this role. He delivers one of the most affecting performances by a child actor ever captured on film, a portrayal no one who sees this movie will forget. If Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel endured 400 Blows, Kotlár’s Joska goes through about 400,000. A psychologist was hired to accompany Kotlár on set and ensure the role doesn’t affect his real-life development; all scenes involving children that depict sexuality were filmed with doubles.
You know what you’re getting into with The Painted Bird during its opening sequence: Joska is assaulted by a group of village bullies, and his small pet doused with gasoline and set ablaze. The sequence is carefully constructed in such a manner that audiences don’t even know what kind of animal the pet is, but the unflinching presentation sets a tone that the rest of the film will follow. (The Painted Bird’s scenes involving animals, which also include the titular creature and a goat, are among its most distressing, and an end credits disclaimer that no animals were harmed during the making of the picture is of little comfort).
Taken care of by an older woman – possibly a grandmother – after the rest of his Jewish family has presumably been transported away, young Joska’s life is thrown into further turmoil when the woman dies and he takes off on his own through the stark Eastern European landscape during WWII.
The Painted Bird is presented in segments named after the characters that Joska meets along his journey; while episodic in nature, the film is epic in scope, and eventful enough that it never becomes slow or boring despite a running time of nearly three hours.
Early scenes are among the most grim, and include moments that have earned the movie some of its festival notoriety; in one sequence, Joska is buried up to his neck in the ground and pecked at by crows, and in another, an obsessed miller (strikingly portrayed by Udo Kier) gouges out the eyes of a man he thinks has been lusting after his wife and feeds them to his cats.
Afterwards, in a scene that encapsulates the hopelessness of The Painted Bird, Joska collects the eyes and returns them to the man; blind and near death, slumped next to a tree, Joska’s kind gesture is of little help.
But despite the almost never-ending brutality, there are brief moments of, if not kindness or compassion, at least humanity. In a non-verbal but commanding performance, Stellan Skarsgård plays a Nazi officer who allows Joska to escape after being ordered to kill him; later, a priest played by Harvey Keitel begs for his release.
The cycle of misery continues, however, when Keitel’s priest delivers the boy into the arms of a pedophile menacingly played by Julian Sands. Though never graphic, the scenes involving Sands are among The Painted Bird’s most disconcerting – but their culmination gives the audience, at least, some sense of perverse justice.
Aleksey Kravchenko, unforgettable as the teenage protagonist in Elem Klimov’s Come and See, here portrays a benevolent Russian soldier who shows Joska some sympathy; devastatingly, no good deed goes unpunished in The Painted Bird. Later, Barry Pepper plays a Russian sniper who exacts bloody eye-for-eye vengeance in a sequence that allows for some mutually-acknowledged humanity to breath through the horrors of war. It’s one of the finest scenes in the film.
Jerzy Kosiński’s novel drew strong controversy in Poland, not so much for its content, which was widely praised upon release, but for its presentation as a fact-based account of the writer’s own experiences as a young child during WWII, which was later debunked. But Václav Marhoul’s film promotes no such tale, and its fictional account of the horrors of the Holocaust are among the most stark and believable you’ll ever see.
Director Marhoul has made only two previous films, the 2004 detective spoof Mazaný Filip (Smart Filip) and the 2008 war drama Tobruk. But The Painted Bird, his first feature in eleven years, is not only unlike those, it’s unlike almost any film that has come before it. This is a masterpiece on the level of František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová, just as epic in scope and stark in detail, and rates right alongside it as one of the best Czech movies ever made.
Beautifully lensed by Vladimír Smutný in 2.35:1 black & white widescreen, every image captured here has been so carefully crafted you could hang it on your wall (indeed, a coffee table book comprised of photos from the film has been released locally in the Czech Republic). Marhoul and Smutný captured locations across the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Ukraine that flawlessly depict the setting as if they were frozen in time.
The Painted Bird is screening in Prague cinemas in Czech, German, Russian, and a mixture of other Slavic languages termed Interslavic, but dialogue is extremely sparse, and only accounts for roughly nine minutes of screentime during the three-hour according to the director. Even if you can’t see it with English subtitles, The Painted Bird is a film that you need to see.